Time to find a different way in Idlib

Time to find a different way in Idlib

Smoke rises above buildings during shelling by Syrian regime forces and their allies on the town of Khan Sheikhun in the southern countryside of the rebel-held Idlib province on May 11, 2019. (Anas Al-Dyab/AFP)

A friend from Idlib has told me: “We just do not know what is going to happen. This is killing us. We do not know if the bombing will end in days, weeks or months. Where is safe, where is not safe. This uncertainty is what people are so terrified about.”

The future for this province in the northwest of Syria looks terrifying for the nearly 3 million people who survive there. This area, including northern Hama, is the last bastion of the Syrian opposition holding out against the regime in western Syria.

It looks like deja vu, another grim chapter in the Syrian story. For more than two weeks, the Syrian regime and Russian forces have unleashed an intense bombardment, not least in the southern part of the province. This interrupted a rare few months of relative calm for the people there, but now the dreaded barrel bomb is back, falling indiscriminately and killing in the same vein. Schools, hospitals, cultural centers, roads and other civilian infrastructure find themselves under this new barrage.

Half the population is already internally displaced from all over Syria. Many were dumped there after cease-fire deals in other areas of the country, typically from besieged areas. The trouble is that, if Idlib is taken, then there is nowhere else in Syria to push them. This is the last refuge. I ask if Syrians might be able to make it across the 100 kilometers of border the province shares with Turkey. The answer was a clear, “No chance.” At best, the more fortunate and affluent might be able to make their way to Turkish-held Afrin to the north.

Otherwise, those fleeing the violence of the last few weeks are sheltering in olive groves. Their options are few, especially if they have no funds. Even the camps are not free. It has become too expensive to be displaced.

The uncertainty is also over where the fighting will take place. In some places, the resistance to the regime’s advances is fierce, but in others, such as Qalaat Al-Madiq, the resistance withered away and barely put up a fight.

Idlib’s future will tell us much about the future of Syria and the great game that is being played over this country. Russia, Turkey, the Syrian regime and Iran are all treating it like a deadly game of chess. The regime tries to play them off against each other. Russia wants to remain as the dominant player; Turkey has interests in Idlib, but these are secondary to dominating the Kurdish areas; and Iran wants to ensure that the US does not get its way and force it out of the country.

Idlib’s future will tell us much about the future of Syria and the great game that is being played over this country 

Chris Doyle

Because of all this, many Syrians fear dirty backroom deals, something that has blighted their interests in the past. Syrian concerns barely count for anything nowadays. Turkey could well sell out Idlib in exchange for Russian consent for it having a larger buffer zone and greater say in the Kurdish areas of eastern Syria.

Russia proclaims that this assault is not the final push to retake all of Idlib, though President Vladimir Putin has said it could evolve into that. The Syrian regime is desperate to do so, and may try to force Putin’s hand.

Russia’s aims may be more limited at this stage. It maintains that its base at Hmeimim was rocketed from within Idlib and that it needs to push back the rebels. Likewise, it claims it wishes to secure control of the Aleppo to Hama and Latakia motorways, the M4 and M5. These strategic arteries are vital to stimulating the sanctions-hit Syrian economy. Russia has also shown intense irritation with the Turkish inability to restrict the increasing power of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) in the province. It is, by all accounts, the dominant force in the area.

Turkish forces have not even been able to drive HTS out of the buffer zone. Ankara was handed the responsibility of ensuring the security of the area under the Sochi agreement last September. It has notably failed to do much. That said, Russia does not want to trigger a complete falling out with Turkey given its attempts to lure Ankara away from Washington and NATO.

Essentially, HTS evolved out of the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda and, until recently, had received much less international attention than Daesh. American officials would privately say they will deal with HTS at some later date. Back in 2017, the then-US envoy to the anti-Daesh coalition described Idlib as “the largest Al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.” His words were not backed by any actions.

HTS itself is just giving loads of excuses as to why its forces are not engaged in thwarting the Syrian-Russian advance. It is largely young men from villages and towns who are resisting. HTS may well be trying to protect its resources for the time being, betting this is a short-term push. Turkey will have to push it to back and possibly open up the strategic highways, even if this means a loss of income from checkpoints.

After all the carnage that has lacerated Syria, it may be too much to think that one contested area of the country might not require this savage “rubbleizing” process from the air. Most towns and villages in Idlib are smashed enough as it is. Yet the omens are far from positive. HTS will not give up and the Syrian-Russian forces will overly rely on the monopoly of the skies for outright victory. The tragic reality is that, whether US-led or Russian-led, actions against extremists always end up pulverizing civilians and their infrastructure. It is time to find a different way. Sadly, there is no certainty about that either.


  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech
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